Francis X. Blouin 2014-02-10 17:31:03
Symposia “in honor of . . . ” generally tend toward the reflective as colleagues and protégés outline the guest of honor’s legacy. It’s indicative of Francis X. Blouin’s thirty-two years of pioneering leadership as director of the University of Michigan’s (U-M) Bentley Historical Library that the Visual Culture and Archives Symposium on April 4–5, 2013, marking his retirement was a forward-thinking event. Thirty-three speakers across twelve panels demonstrated Blouin’s influence in their own visual culture work. The presentations also illustrated his impact on how archivists and researchers encounter visual culture in the archives. A commonality among the papers was how archival practice neither begins nor ends in the archive. Instead, archival practice travels across formats, time, geographies, ideologies, and institutions. This archival mobility means that our practice toward the visual has to adapt continually. In his remarks, Blouin offered a hat-tip to his colleagues at the Bentley who pushed him to recognize the importance of photography in the archives. It was in this spirit that Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University) offered a series of provocations on whether we value and preserve digital photography with the same methods applied to print Photography. Early in the proceedings, she alluded to a theme across several papers: What can we learn about preserving borndigital materials from our experiences with analog? Notably digital photography was accepted reluctantly as archive-worthy, with Both Schwartz and Krzysztof Pijarski (Film School, Lódz, Poland) questioning both what we choose to archive and how this is done. Archivists, researchers, and practitioners took the audience on a wide-ranging journey into the following: digital reunification for Filipinos’ collective memory; the intimacies of mourning and gendered implications of archiving Poland’s photographers for the Archaeology of Photography Foundation; finding evidence of Robert Rauschenberg’s artistic practice in the New York Times and Life magazine digital archives; U-M’s late 1800s?early 1900s zoology expeditions; and the heart of digital representations of Big Data in the archives. Paul Conway, U-M professor in the School of Information, nicely encapsulated the symposium’s implicit theme in his presentation on users’ decision-making around photographic archives. He observed—applicable to his presentation, but extrapolated to other panels—that the most interesting and innovative archival work “lives at the intersection of discovering, storytelling, and landscape.” One presentation I found emblematic of the high level of scholarly and affective investment in the meaning of archives was Choreographer and dancer Peter Sparling’s “Body Poetics in the Time of Digital Babel: The Screendancer as Poet/Archivist.” Timing his recitation with his own archival footage of dance (now housed in the Bentley), as well as new digitally captured material, Sparling offered the audience a masterful critique of his own subjectivity as an object within the archives and as a user coming from outside the archive to use his own materials. In the context of the other presentations, Sparling’s approach to inside/outside worked for his exploration of embodiment but also reached to other presentations, such as Kilian Klug (Plural, Berlin) and his discussion of representing Archival data via development of an Interactive Research Table, which provides an intuitive access to digital archives and cross-media storytelling. Boundaries were necessarily blurred in pushing the audience to think beyond disciplinary lines. The symposium, which was organized by the Bentley’s Acting Associate Director Nancy Bartlett, wrapped up with Blouin’s enthusiastic assessment that intellectual synergy was achieved; boundaries were pushed and connections made to archives and other communities. He noted that his retirement from the Bentley this August will be in the nick of time: Born-digital presents new challenges in appraisal. “In the spirit of where I am, good luck! Tell me how it turns out!” Blouin quipped. Based on the packed house of colleagues, students, archives users, and other guests who crowded into the Rackham Amphitheater for a concluding tribute, it’s a safe bet that Blouin won’t get away from the archives community that easily nor any time soon. He’ll continue to influence archival practice in innovative ways beginning next fall as professor in U-M’s Department of History and School of Information. A publication of the symposium presentations, to be coproduced by the Bentley and SAA, is in the offing. In the meantime, video for the symposium and the tribute to Blouin are at http://bentley.umich.edu/general/symposiumvideo.php. If you’d like to catch up on the panels through tweets, U-M’s SAA chapter (@mich_archives) covered most, if not all, of the panels with #bhlvisual.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.